Ben Wheatley’s surprising new feature is a poignant and quintessentially British family drama, far removed from his vicious, gun-toting exploits from recent years. Indeed, the closest this ever gets to ferocity is when Doon Mackichan’s matriarch falls over a doorstep – the first of several mundane incidents that Wheatley acutely twists into bedlam.
As can be gathered by the title, the film takes place on New Year’s Eve. The titular Colin (Neil Maskell) has begrudgingly organised a family get-together at a rented county manor (referred to as ‘Downton’ by one guest, and the sincerity is never clear). The core ménage are all there – parents Sandy (Mackichan) and Gordon (Bill Paterson), along with sister Gini (Hayley Squires) – but the guest list extends to an almost farcical scale. From the sentimental Uncle Bertie (Charles Dance) to Asim Chaudhry’s brazen Sham (who doesn’t seem to have been invited at all), this is a dysfunctional family pushed to the very limits of ‘clusterfuck’. It makes for a boiling stew that’s ripe for chaos – and that’s before black sheep David (Sam Riley) turns up.
For such an exhaustive cast list, these characters never feel thinly developed. Without ever nearing cliché (a rarity for these tightly-crammed family dramas), every character Wheatley introduces us too is both hilarious in their own right, and harbouring their own personal grudge. It’s a really well-thought out ensemble, one that offers essentially every viewer some sort of entry point. Colin’s teenage daughter (Nicole Nettlingham) grumbles of political apathy (“fuck Labour and fuck the Tories”) in contrast to her uncle (Peter Ferdinando), a typical ex-working-class Blairite whose only wish is a “Hilary Benn-Brexit”. A later scene finds a tipsy and teary Sham confessing to his Pakistani parents that he smokes, though while he’s ‘seen people do cocaine he never has himself’ (Chaudhry is the real breakout from the film).
Quips fly thick and fast, never lingering too long on one punchline before the next hits with similar aplomb. At the centre of it all is Maskell’s tour-de-force in Colin, whose razor-sharp sarcasm is coupled with a subdued bitterness. He’s orchestrated the whole thing, but he’d much rather be anywhere else – and it’s Colin’s ways of dealing with this irritation that give the film both its comedic and emotional crux.
Laurie Rose’s intimate handheld work behind the camera is superb, wrestling an expert level of tact out of these narrow, dilapidated corridors; while Clint Mansell’s eccentric score gives this quasi-Shakespearean tragedy an appropriately Medieval vigour. In fact, everyone involved in this production deserves praise for turning around a feature this good in under a fortnight. Wheatley himself clearly agrees, with the film’s end credits (scored by Mansell’s exceptional “[exeunt]”) showcasing faces from behind the camera in a wonderful celebration of filmmaking.
Without revealing anything about where the plot goes, it’s worth saying that Wheatley could quite comfortably go the easy route in the rounded happy ending. Thankfully, though, he doesn’t – and the gut-punching finale will resonate with anyone who belongs to a dysfunctional family. Here, happy endings are reverie, a fantasy that can never be attained by the whole clan. And with the BBC bringing the film to our televisions this Christmas, it works as free therapy if nothing else. So, from living rooms everywhere this holiday, here’s to the Bursteads.
Dir: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Neil Maskell, Haley Squires, Charles Dance, Joe Cole, Bill Paterson
DOP: Laurie Rose
Music: Clint Mansell
Runtime: 95 minutes